Friday, October 23, 2009

Christmas In The Heart

For the better part of a week now, I've been immersing myself in Bob Dylan's wondrous new release, Christmas In The Heart. Yes, a Christmas album. Now I know there are people in the world who would rather run barefoot over a mile of upturned plug tops than listen to three quarters of an hour's worth of syrupy crooning, but I am not one of them. I adore Christmas, and one of the things I adore most about Christmas is the tat. Give me glitter, give me fake snow and plastic trees and cheesy decorations, and I'm rolling like Porky in a chocolate bath.
But Bob Dylan making a Christmas album? Hardly seems real, does it? Some things are just plain right from the off, Bing with that pipe, for instance, but others seem about as stable as a souped-up cracker. Ole Bob has been rolling pretty well of late, rapturously received chart-topping albums, a hit radio show, a neverending tour that seems to be getting better by the day. But a Christmas album? We know (from the little that we really know of him) that he has always been a contrary sort, the sort who will gladly shatter your perceptions at the turn of a card. But we also know that he is someone who likes to do his own thing, blaze his own trail, as it were, and damn the consequences.
A Christmas album is a risk. Bob's voice has been going downhill for years and is probably fast approaching the bottom by now, and Christmas songs, tacky though they may be, and trite and sentimental and all the other cuss words that people without hearts like to throw at them, are undeniably well written. The have to be, in order to have survived for so long. The best of them have lain down challenges to even the very finest voices of the past hundred years.
Bob sounds great. He's grizzled, warbling, and he steps out of melodies like they are oncoming traffic, yet somehow, some impossibly how, he makes it work. The music is all that it should be, bright and shiny, full of fun, tight as November's jeans in January, but what makes the whole thing work is Dylan's deep and unwavering charisma. I've woken three days straight now with 'Must Be Santa' scratching at my throat and churning my blood to butter, and if I wasn't such a happy elf perhaps I would be reaching for the twelve-gauge by now. But happily for me, and for all those within buckshot's distance, that's not the case. I love it, LOVE IT!!! I am pleased, thrilled, overjoyed to report that Bob's still got it, whatever it is. If you like Christmas the way all good children, even the grownup ones, should, then you will surely love Christmas In The Heart. So go on, bolt out and buy it.

P.S. - If you need further convincing, please note that all royalties go to charity. So not only will a purchase be filling your head with yuletide sounds (and in October, no less - who could ask for more than that) you will also be helping out some of the worthiest causes around.
Well done, Bob, on both counts, and here's hoping for a sequel next year!!!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Simon Van Booy, King of the Short Story

It has been quite a while since I have last posted a blog and this is just a brief stop-off to shout the news that my good and lovely friend, the brilliant Simon Van Booy, yesterday won the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, the world's richest prize for a short story collection.
The whole festival was really great, full of sweet people (Leisl Jobson, Madeleine Darcy, ZZ Packer etc.). I was very honoured to be asked to read (sharing the bill on the night with Simon, in fact) and I have to offer my congratulations to Patrick Cotter, head honcho of the Munster Literature Centre, for organising such a wonderful week (ably assisted in his endeavours by Jennifer and Marina).
The readings went down a storm. Simon's book is a truly incredible piece of work, and it had to be, in order to edge out the competition. So, commiserations to those who missed out (especially to Shih Li Kow, who I very much enjoyed meeting and whose collection, Ripples and other stories, is for me one of the must-reads of the year) but a huge and hearty stuffed-with-Clonakilty-black-pudding congratulations to Simon!
There is so much ground to cover, but last night was a late one and I have to get some real writing done, so I'll post again soon, maybe even with a picture or two!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Reading In September

The Munster Literature Centre have announced the line-up for this year's Frank O'Connor Festival (check out for full details).
I'm scheduled to read at the School of Music in Union Quay (Cork...) at 7 p.m. on Friday, 18th September, sharing the bill with Simon Van Booy, one of the shortlisted writers for this year's Frank O'Connor Award.
I don't do many public readings, tending as I do to turn into a quivering mess when stood in front of expectant faces, but it will offer a chance at some (much needed) publicity for my book of stories, In Too Deep, and I suppose at the very least it will be an experience. Please come along if you can...
The line-up for the entire festival looks pretty good, actually. Some middle- to heavyweight hitters will be on show and it should make for a pretty good week, all things considered. Also on the Friday, at 4 p.m. in the City Library, Nuala Ní Chonchúir will be officially launching her third collection of short stories, Nude.
Wait, let me clarify. It's not that she'll be launching her new collection in the nude; that's just the name of the book. Nude. Got it? Good.

Monday, August 3, 2009

John le Carre

I've just started John le Carre's latest novel, A Most Wanted Man, and sixty pages in, they old boy has got me. I've always loved le Carre's novels, as much for the bleakness of their atmosphere as for their enviable plotting. If you bother to look, you'll surely find copious comparisons in the media between his writing style (and, I suppose, subject matter) and that of Graham Greene, yet Greene is generally quite highly lauded in literary circles whereas Mr. le Carre tends to be gently tucked aside and more or less dismissed as a serious writer. Well, I'm sure his books sell well and I doubt that he requires validation from the critics, but I do think he tends to be unfairly treated in reviews. At his best, I think he is as good as it gets, a sharp stylist adept at dealing with difficult subject matter. And I'd take The Spy Who Came In From The Cold over most of the Pop-Idol, hip-as-Miles style outings offered up by today's so-called literati.
Next up for me, two imminent releases: 'Noah's Compass' by Anne Tyler and 'Inherent Vice' by Thomas Pynchon. Tyler will, I'm sure, be solid and beautifully dependable (one of my favourite ever writers). With Pynchon, well, fingers-crossed for another V...

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Newgrange and the Hill of Tara

I'm so bad at this blogging business. All it takes is a few minutes to scribble something down but sometimes the minutes just won't give themselves up to a bit of freestyling. I've spent this week trying to work on a story that keeps flexing new, and previously unguessed at, muscles. Then, the other day (one is much the same as the next to me, except Sundays, which always feel different) I received a rewrite request from an anthology that I had submitted to and then forgotten about.

And in between all that, I managed to squeeze in a long-promised pilgrimage to Newgrange and the Hill of Tara. All I can say is, astonishing. Being at Newgrange is like looking up at the stars on a clear winter's night. Built 5000+ years ago, predating Stonehenge by five hundred years and the Pyramids of Giza by a thousand, it is an astonishing feat of engineering. But even more than that, you actually get a sense of the people who lived there. It is an undeniably spiritual place.

Tara is everything that Newgrange is, and yet the two are completely different. Where the hand of jackpot tourism (albeit gently) pats Newgrange and its stunning surround, with guided tourbuses and a state-of-the-art museum/visitors centre, the Hill of Tara has been left to the ravages of wind and time. The ancient mounds are signposted, and a little bit of pre-visit reading will stand you in good stead, a little investigation into the wonderfully mottled history of the place, but walking there gives you a sense of nature as well as history. The grass is long, the view on a (rare as hen's teeth) clear day supposedly spans thirteen different counties, and there are sheep everywhere, grazing or tending to other business. At the bottom of the hill, there are a few shops, gimmicky places that push the usual sort of wares to new age hippies and wandering wiccans. Yet it seemed obvious to me that the Irish government doesn't really want to know. The place is poorly signposted, facilities are meagre, and there is an almost intentional playing down of the fact that this was once, and for thousands of years, the most important piece of ground in Ireland, the seat of the High Kings, a truly ancient wonder. Now, though, the new motorway is being pushed through the valley, and the powers-that-be, the powers that we made, have decided it is easier to do the dirty work of progress when the eyes of the country and the world are averted.

Go to Tara, read about the history of the place and go, stand on the Mound of the Hostages or rest your hand on the Lia Fail, the Stone of Destiny. Listen to the whispering of the wind and open yourself to the spirits of the past, taste the ancient breath of the place on your tongue. It really is something worth doing, a true joy to behold. Go, and go today or tomorrow, because the way that we have been allowing our government to ride roughshod over everything that ever mattered and all in the threatening name of progress, rest assured that the day is coming soon when there will be nothing left to see.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

A Brief Skim

A very quick blog entry today... So much going on, so little time!
Pretty good week, actually, all things considered. It has rained more or less constantly, which always helps the writing cause. I find rainy days to be perfect for contemplating life and all its many twists. Yesterday, I started a story that has filled me with hope. No one else might ever like a word of it but I'm loving every minute spent slaving over it. Don't you just love when that happens?
Also found time this week for a great James Taylor concert, and this morning I was interviewed by the wonderful poet/songwriter, Cliff Wedgebury, on Cork's CUH-FM. We talked about (and listened to) music, and we discussed my new collection, 'In Too Deep', as well as writing in general. A surprisingly enjoyable experience, actually...
Finally, tomorrow I'm off to Dublin to catch one of my childhood heroes, Bruce Springsteen. He will be rocking the RDS and I'll be there to swallow every syllable of his gospel.
This has been just a brief skim of a nice week. I'll delve a little deeper just as soon as I get a minute to spare.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Crosby, Stills & Nash pictures...

Stephen Stills (with an unfortunately placed microphone obliterating much of his face), onstage at the Marquee, Cork, 29th June 2009

Graham Nash and David Crosby, onstage at the Marquee, Cork, 29th June 2009

Irene (Dharmaraja), me and Graham Nash, outside the Marquee in Cork, 29th June 2009

A perfect day in the company of Crosby, Stills & Nash

What a day yesterday proved to be. Mars must have been in conjunction with something or other because here in Douglas it was almost possible to feel the great grinding cogs of the universe clicking into place.
First off, a call from Mercier Press. The Sunday Tribune ran a review of 'In Too Deep'... While it wasn't, I have to admit, all sweetness and light, I was in one of those rare moods that allowed me to wallow in the positives and ignore the more 'reserved' suggestions. And there were enough of those positives to keep me comfortably afloat. (In case anyone feels like a look, you can read it for yourself if you follow this link:

Then, minutes later, the phone rang again. Pat Cotter of The Munster Literature Centre, this time, inviting me to read at this year's Frank O'Connor Short Story Festival here in Cork. Now, reading in public is usually enough to turn even my best day to lumpy porridge, but again, a deep breath, and here I am, not only agreeing to it but actually, in a most peculiar way (at least for me) happy about the idea. Perhaps the most-welcome reading fee had something to do with this, or the fact that Friday, the 18th of September seems so far away as to be not quite real yet...

The sun was shining, and by three o'clock I'd had just about all that I could bear of my stifling attic. My sister and I decided to take ourselves over to the Marquee, several hours early, and try to take on a little bit of the concert vibe that, they say, is almost exclusive to Crosby, Stills and Nash. By four, we were sitting on a low wall outside the venue, by half past we were watching the boys arrive. The soundcheck was muffled but still, amazingly, quite lovely.
Then, a surprise. Well, a shock, really. Not the first of the day but not the last, either. By about five o'clock there were only a couple of other people milling around. Nobody was expecting Graham Nash and his family to come strolling out (in the company of a gentleman named Billy, a wonderfully authentic looking hippie/roadie with a great white ZZ Top style beard...) Graham chatted with us, signed by old Daylight Again LP, posed for a photo (which I promise to post very soon),and introduced us to his family. I'm not sure I have met many more personable people in my life. I had three copies of 'In Too Deep' in my bag, and I passed them along and it was all just thoroughly pleasant, the sort of experience that lights up any day.
The show itself lived up to my expectations and then surpassed them, leaving them wallowing in the gutter. The harmonies were truly not to be believed, even half a lifetime of listening to the albums can't properly prepare you for the beauty of their sound. I had managed to secure front row dead-centre seats (courtesy of some happy guesswork on ticketmaster's presale password) and we had the perfect vantage point. Stills played guitar like the damn thing had been invented with him in mind, Crosby might have the hair of a clown but he still has the voice of an angel, and Nash held it all together, through two-and-a-half incredible hours (with a short fifteen minute interval). They played all the old classics, Stills dug out some Buffalo Springfield beauties and there was a great smattering of covers (Dylan's 'Girl From The North Country' with Stills doing a terrific job on vocals, a juggernaut Grateful Dead cover, 'Uncle John's Band' and probably best of all, a version of the Rolling Stones' 'Ruby Tuesday' that was positively hymnal).
But my highlight was still to come.
Just before the midway point, Graham Nash took his place behind the keyboards. He spoke of meeting my sister Irene and I earlier in the day, he thanked me for the gift of copies of the book that I had given them, said that he had already started reading it and was really enjoying the first story, 'Love Sick', and told everyone in the place to go out and buy it! "We'd like to give something to you, and to Irene," he said, then launched into a beautiful version of 'Our House'!
That should have been enough, a thousand times more than enough, but there was one more little tip of the hat to my oh-so-positive oh-so-perfect heavenly gift of a day. Just before the stunning 'Teach Your Children' singalong encore, Mr. Nash wished everyone a safe journey home... (and don't forget to buy Billy O'Callaghan's book' he added, before kicking into the song).
Now, I have in my possession a copy of David Crosby's autobiography (a few years old now but still available on Amazon...). I'd been hoping, though not really expecting (given the petty nature of the marquee security) to get the book signed. Well, Graham saw me holding it up, came to the front of the stage and took it, then got Cros to scribble a signature. In this unexpected, incredible, beautiful way, one of the great nights of my life rumbled to a close...

Monday, June 29, 2009

Excuses... and Crosby, Stills & Nash

Lately, I've been very lazy about blogging. The sun is shining again in Cork and I have been stumbling my way through a new story that just doesn't want to finish, and that's about it, really. Excuses.
I've got tickets for tonight's concert at the Marquee. Crosby, Stills & Nash. I've been lucky enough to have seen most of my favourite performers over the years but this particular trio has always eluded me. Half a lifetime ago, I picked up a copy of their first album and was hooked. The harmonies were truly a thing of beauty, the songwriting ethereal and evocative, the playing always immaculate and at times even breathtaking. Stephen Stills can wield a guitar like few others, I think. Since that first listen, I've tried to keep tabs on them, in all their various incarnations and combinations. It hasn't been all sweetness and triumph, but it has always made for an interesting journey.
Actually, they fascinate me as characters too. Crosby's much publicised addictions and arrests, Stills's rage-games and unfortunate health (and hearing) problems, and Graham Nash, the peacekeeper, caught in the middle, trying to keep the boat afloat. Add to the cauldron the brittle genius of Neil Young (who last year blew the Marquee away with a stunning set of rock God-speak) and you happen upon a volatile mix. At their best, at their peak (and Woodstock was, incredibly, forty years ago this summer), to herd them on stage together must have been like trying to juggle dynamite. With four such disparate personalities, and four such enormous egos, you had to be prepared for virtually anything. These days, of course, age and circumstance must have tempered them, at least somewhat, but I'm certain that a glimmer of that noxious essence still survives. I'm hoping for fireworks tonight!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Book-Of-The-Month at the Book Centre

Some good news... 'In Too Deep' is to be named The Book Centre's book-of-the-month for July. The Book Centre is a chain of bookshops around Kilkenny, Waterford and a few other east coast towns (not sure exactly where else, but will find out). Last year, they ran 'In Exile' as their book-of-the-month and evidently did well enough with it to want to repeat the experiment. I'm thrilled to bits!
Actually, I find the idea of strangers walking into a bookshop or going online and buying my book to be astonishing and not a little incredible. It's a little easier to understand people you know going out to buy it, but for a stranger to do so is slightly mind-boggling!
The book got a nice bit of coverage in the Evening Echo (Cork's nightly gossip-Bible) on Monday night, and hopefully there will be some more to come. It stands to reason that people will never buy the book if they are unaware of its existence. A few cringe-worthy pictures of me have already surfaced, though, so there is a price to pay...

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Ray Davies In Kinsale - A partisan review...

Kinsale, on a warm summer's evening, is simply breathtaking. The harbour full of boats, the water glistening in the sun, the narrow streets happy with casually strolling tourists - it's the way all seaside towns are meant to be but so rarely are.
I arrived early, expecting quite a crowd. After all, we were about to experience a living legend (a phrase not to be used lightly, but one that is surely apt in this case) up close and personal. The show was limited to four hundred. Initially, Ray Davies had requested no publicity, but when the tickets weren't shifting the organisers had to leak word of the show, and then, of course, it was a double-quick sellout. People were advised to come early, etc. etc. But this is Cork, where nothing ever happens in too much of a hurry, and by seven there was just me and a lovely girl from Muswell Hill named Jane, a real dedicated follower of Kinky fashion, having attended more than a hundred of Ray's shows. Still, no crowd meant a prime spot, front and centre, about two and a half inches from the stage...
Ray, accompanied by Cork-born guitarist Bill Shanley, arrived to great cheering about ten minutes after the scheduled nine o'clock starting time, looking casual cool in a grey sports jacket and faded jeans. What followed was a tight and sweaty ninety minute set, fully, I suppose, of the usual suspects. By that time, the place was packed, and the bar was doing a roaring trade. At the front, we found ourselves standing alongside Ray's daughter - the whole reason for this night - and it was wonderful to see Ray direct so many lines at her.
He was quite talkative during the show, and seemed in good humour, though the night was not without its difficulties, and the noise of people chatting at the bar did tend to intrude on the music. Ray took it all with smiles, though. He spoke about Kinsale, where he has a house, about the people and the surrounding area. He spoke a little about the place being the inspiration behind 'One More Time', and he dedicated 'I'm Not Like Everybody Else' to the head of his daughter's school, expressing his admiration for the way she refused to take no for an answer in getting the gig arranged and organised. One amusing moment, early on, was when someone, already souped up on porter, shouted out 'Waterloo' as a request, and Ray offered up a very mocking snippet of the Abba song!
Recognising that he had something of a battle on his hands, he tried his best to turn most of the songs into singalongs. Some, as you can imagine, worked better than others. Particularly well received were 'Dedicated Follower of Fashion' (which he introduced as an English Folk song but with the twist of a long Irish instrumental intro, courtesy of Bill Shanley), 'Sunny Afternoon', 'Tired Of Waiting', and 'Set Me Free', which the crowd kicked into before Ray did, much to his obvious delight. Actually, that's the sort of night it was... With the noise from the bar swamping the quieter songs, I suppose he knew he had to keep it loud. 'Let's try to raise the roof,' he said, and that, more or less, was what he did.
As he was leaving the stage, I was close enough to hold out a copy of X-Ray for him to sign, and I was also able to present him with a copy of my new book, 'In Too Deep' (which - hint, hint - available from amazon, if anyone who reads this happens to be curious enough to want to buy it.. just search under Billy O'Callaghan and it should pop right up...).
Ten minutes of cheering followed his departure, the crowd seemingly certain that he'd return for a few more, but to no avail. So, we got no 'Waterloo Sunset', no 'Days', no 'You Really Got Me'. But then, Ray could probably have played another full show and still not satisfied all the requests (personally, I had been hoping for 'Don't Forget To Dance'...). What we did get was a full blown 90 minutes of wonderful music, and Ballinadee school made somewhere in the region of sixteen thousand euros for their building project, not counting what they brought in with raffle ticket sales (the five prizes were signed copies of the new choral album, which alas I didn't win).
Great music, nice people, a lovely town. On the whole, that is pretty close to the perfect recipe for creating a truly enjoyable night.

In case you are wondering, some of the songs performed (and in no particular order, my memory not being what it should be) were:
I Need You
Where Have All The Good Times Gone
I'm Not Like Everybody Else
Dedicated Follower Of Fashion
All Day And All Of The Night
Celluloid Heroes (truncated version)
Dead End Street
The Getaway
One More Time
Set Me Free
Sunny Afternoon
Tired Of Waiting For You
The Tourist
20th Century Man

My sister, who is seventeen and was seeing Ray for the first time, took a few pictures at the show. I'll post these as soon as she works out how to upload them to this blog!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Ray Davies In Kinsale

I opened last night's evening paper to a big surprise... Ray Davies, singer-songwriter extraordinaire and founder of seminal 60s rockers, The Kinks, is to play a special fund-raising concert in Cork (well, Kinsale, a few miles from Cork) tomorrow (Friday) night. A surprise, a thrill, a rare treat!
As quickly as I could dial, I put through a call to the advertised number, and booked my ticket. Limited to just 400 hundred, the show should be all that I expect and probably more. Fantastic!
Ray, for those not too familiar with the man, ranks high on any list of the world's finest songwriters, famous for penning such genuine classics as 'You Really Got Me', 'Lola', 'Sunny Afternoon', 'Dedicated Follower Of Fashion', 'Days', and the beautiful 'Waterloo Sunset', amongst many other. He is also responsible for one of the greatest albums ever made, The Village Green Preservation Society, a trippy slice of ye-olde British nostalgia and a truly artistic triumph. I've never really understood why the Kinks aren't ranked on more of an even keel with the likes of The Beatles and the Rolling Stones. It is true, I suppose, that their music was not quite as polished as their more famous contemporaries but, listening to it now, it seems just as incendiary and as insightful.
One thing I do know: In concert, Mr. Davies doesn't disappoint. It has been a few years since he last played in Cork, when he brought his acoustic Storyteller show to the Everyman Palace back in 2000. I had second-row seats that night, and the show, a brilliant two-and-a-half hour combination of songs and excerpted recitations from his then-recently published 'pseudo-autobiographical' masterpiece, X-Ray, was as good as any I have ever seen. Here's hoping for something approaching the same tomorrow night!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

In Too Deep

Mercier Press asked me to post this on the blog. It's a link that will take anyone interested in purchasing a copy of my new collection, 'In Too Deep' straight to their website. Orders are dealt with in a prompt fashion and postage is free for Irish customers.

Also, for the Cork-based (or Cork-bound), signed copies can be purchased in both Waterstones and Easons...

Saturday, June 13, 2009

In Too Deep

Yesterday morning at 11 a.m., at The South County pub in Douglas, my new book, 'In Too Deep', published by Mercier Press, was launched onto an unsuspecting (and probably uncaring) world. We had a nice little get-together, very informal, tea and scones for a crowd of about twenty (mostly press), losts of pictures taken and hands shaken.
Thank God it's over...
Actually, even though I've had some copies for the past few weeks, it is only now beginning to feel real. The book came out really well, and I'm thrilled with it. Now, I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do. The local papers were all in attendance at the press launch, so hopefully I will get some much needed publicity, but other than that, I suppose it's just a matter of sitting back and waiting for some (hopefully good) reviews to appear.
In a strange way, I feel a little detached from it all. 'In Too Deep', as far as I am concerned, was done and dusted six months or so ago. Now, I'm already neck-deep in other things, other stories desperate to be written.
So, if anyone feels like buying a copy (PLEASE DO!!!), the book should be available from all good bookshops. Alternatively, and with the absolute minimum of fuss, you can get it from Amazon:

Happy reading!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

A couple of gripes

Well, the winners of this year's PJ O'Connor RTE Radio Drama Awards were announced last night and, yet again, I missed out on the prizes. A high standard, they said, yada yada yada, difficult choices but in the end ...
The winners? Oh, yeah:

1st - Dylan, Thomasina and Me, by John Austin Connolly
2nd - Elvis Is Dead, by Shea Healy
3rd - Happy Hour, by Ashley Taggart

Mr Connolly is a retired clinical psychologist who, in 2007, won the prestigious David C. Horn Prize, presented by the Yale Drama Series and selected by no less a theatrical luminary than Edward Albee. Impressive stuff indeed, and congratulations!

Of course, I was gutted to miss out, though at this stage, I must confess, not terribly surprised. RTE, let's face it, are a peculiar lot.
Gripe #1 - Last night, half of the Arts Show was given over to the announcement of the award, though of course they didn't bother with such trifling formalities as actually announcing the shortlist. Trimmed to fourteen from more than two hundred, it would have taken mere seconds to do so, and it would at least have offered a glimmer of satisfaction, however tiny, but no matter...
Gripe #2 - The manner in which RTE consistently and persistently reward their own. I know this will sound like bitterness in defeat, but well, what can I say? I AM bitter. Well, a little, anyway. Look, I'm not trying to say that my play was so much better than the others. Losing out is lousy, yes, but I can live comfortably with that, having had more than my share of practice. But, usually, when you enter a contest, whether for a literary prize or for something in the local newspaper, or even for something that you find on the back of a Corn Flakes box, you will see the usual disclaimer and rules of conduct. No employees, or family members of employees, shall enter ... etc, etc.
Shea Healy, last night's second place winner, is, yes, the Shea Healy of RTE's Nighthawks fame; the Shea Healy who, back in about 1980, penned a Eurovision Song Contest winner; the Shea Healy with the seemingly wide-open walk-on-anytime-you-feel-like-it invitation to The Late Late Show; the Shea Healy who has been an RTE staple for as long as I can remember. I have nothing against the man, he is clearly a talented writer and has very likely penned a wonderful play, but honestly, this sort of thing does stick in my throat a little bit.
Now, if this was just a once-off, maybe I could shrug it off as simply one of those things. But it's not a one-off. Last year, to offer another example, the winner of the RTE Francis MacManus Short Story Award was Joe O'Donnell, another RTE-lifer, who was not only the creater of 1970s Ireland's most iconic children's phenomena, Bosco, and former head of Young People's TV in RTE, but who had also made a career of writing for some of RTE's signature shows, like The Riordans and Glenroe. Furthermore, he was a former winner of the award and had something like fifteen stories and over sixty plays broadcast on radio.
And the really amusing (or galling) thing about all of this is that both the PJ O'Connor and Francis MacManus Awards mention on their entry forms that they are in existence to encourage new and emerging writers!
Oh, take no notice. This is just me blowing off steam. The fact is, there is no beating the system. Welcome to back-scratching Ireland in all its crooked glory, where no act is considered too shameful as long as you play it out with a straight face and a brass neck. The government do it, the banks do it, even education fleas probably do it!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Writing in the Sun

Today, for the first time in probably a week, the sun has dimmed a little over Cork. Not a bad thing, actually, if, like me, you can take flaming air only in small doses. The gardens are majestic in the sunshine, life blooming in all its glory, and when a breeze brushes by it carries with it the scent-memories of the sea. Lovely weather for sitting out with a book, or a notepad...
I've been very disciplined, this past week, getting up early to put in four or five or six hours at the computer, pecking away, deleting and pecking anew. The story I've been working on is done. I nailed it yesterday, then shut it down. In a fortnight or so, I'll read it again. Maybe then I'll see its flaws. And in the meantime, I've started in on something new, a nice surprise and one that has grabbed me from the very beginning. Today's writing has been a thorough pleasure.
Generally I call a halt to things once I've put down a thousand words, a thousand that I can live with, that is. As a guide it's good, gives me something to aim for, gives me the discipline that I need.
Today, and a thousand words in to my new story I didn't really want to stop. So I didn't. I rambled on, opening up the story, putting together the skeleton bone by bone, knowing that I can always go back and add some flesh. This evening, I'm happy...

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Sun and Dandelion Wine

Cork is currently basking in a bit of a heatwave, which is my excuse for the recent lack of posts. Actually, it has been wonderful, invigorating, inspiring, and a host of other superlatives far too boring to mention. Last night was barbecue night, which meant hamburgers and cider, crisps with dips, wine if that happens to be your tipple of choice, lots of chat, and quite a few greenfly (or maybe that should be greenflies ...?). Anyway, good times.
I've been reading Dandelion Wine for what seems like the hundredth time. I really can't express how much this book means to me except to say that Ray Bradbury is music to my soul. This is perfect sunshine reading. Dandelion Wine recounts the story of a young boy losing himself in a beautiful long-ago summer and, in the process, discovering life. Bradbury adores words, the feel and the taste and the shape of them. He's not Hemingway or Joyce, but he's not 'just' the science fiction writer that many consider him to be, either. I have read a massive amount of his writing, and only a fraction of his output can, in my opinion, be labelled. He's a fantasist, yes, perhaps, but only in the most beautiful meaning of the word. Those who overlook him, or who choose to dismiss him, are doing themselves a great disservice.
At the moment, I'm working on a new story. I was excited when I started in on this idea a week or so ago, and I'm still excited now that I can see the finish line in sight. I've been working and slaving over it, putting down the sentences and then picking them apart, and my heart is beating with such joy over this one that I'm not sure I really want it to end (though of course I do, because it won't be a story without an ending). As the hours drift by, though, I find myself glancing with an increasing sense of longing towards the great empty blue of the sky beyond my open attic window. A thousand words today is good enough, I think. Outside, the sunshine is waiting, with gallons of dandelion wine. Tomorrow will have to be another day ...

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Buy A Book

Well, I've just received some copies of my new book, 'In Too Deep', and I must say that the thrill of actually holding the thing in my hands has been more than worth the struggle. Mercier Press have done a beautiful job on the design and it really feels like a high-quality piece of work.
Anyone who might be eager (or curious...) for a sneak preview of the cover can check it out at:
'In Too Deep' will be launched on the unsuspecting public over the next couple of weeks...
Lately, everyone has been feeling some of the financial squeeze brought on by the grip of that good old buzz-word, 'recession'. Last week, while reading Vanessa Gebbie's blog (Vanessa is a fine writer, by the way, with an excellent collection of stories, Words From A Glass Bubble, that really cannot be recommended enough) I stumbled across a statement posted by Salt, one of Britain's lesser-known publishing houses, who specialise in short story collections. With little or nothing in the way of arts council funding, they rely desperately on book sales to keep afloat. The past year, though, has seen a dramatic downturn in revenue, and now they are really struggling. As a (more or less) last-gasp effort, they started the 'Just One Book Campaign' (follow this link: to read all the gory details).
Thankfully, their call to arms seems to be showing dividends, but it should act as a warning to everyone. The publishing industry is fickle, and it is the independents that keep the big houses honest. They are in constant need of support (my own publishers, Mercier Press, just as much as Salt), and the best way that readers can help is to take a look at their catalogues, pick out something they like, and buy a book.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Happy Birthday, Bob

My good friend Bob Dylan turns 68 years old today, so I will be celebrating by a chronological trawl through his great and vast pantheon of masterpieces. Close to fifty albums separate the eponymously titled first album (released in 1962) from his latest work (the recently released, Together Through Life, which grows more impressive with every listen), which will probably account for an entire week of pretty intensive listening.
As I write this, I am listening to 'When The Ship Comes In', from the 1964 album, The Times They Are a-Changin'. The song is just one of the many often overlooked gems in his incredible catalogue of work, one with a simple-sounding arrangement and melody that belies a rhapsody of startling imagery and immense drama. This is Bob in all his glory. Instead of the standard 1964 fare of cars and kisses, we are instead treated (or exposed) to a rainbow stew that melds Revelations with Kerouac, with Giotto, with Robert Johnson. And yet, even beyond the convoluted web-weaving of the words, what staggers me is the sheer animalistic power of Bob's voice. He is twenty-two years old on this record, but he manages to sound ancient, or eternal, all-knowing. Above sparse accompaniment, just a strummed acoustic guitar and a few puncturing harmonica wails, that voice rides waves and holds down the air. It delivers the words as Gospel, at once angry and hopeful. Magnificent, actually.
Whether he knows it or not (and whether he cares or not), Bob Dylan means an enormous amount to the lives of multitudes of people. In this life, worthwhile connections are difficult to make, but his art has a unique way of reaching out and working away on the senses until some important fuse is blown, and there is room, finally, for understanding. He is 68 years old now, and thankfully still as sharp as a bag of pins, still as good and as great as ever. There are not many like him. No, strike that. There is no one like him. Happy birthday, Bob, and here's wishing for many, many more.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

A Big Fish

I get sidetracked easily. Three weeks or so ago, I made a vow that I was going to focus all of my energies on researching my novel. I have the idea, but I need details. A lot of details. So I set to it, braced mself against distraction and went digging up the dirt, picking out only the tastiest of the bones. Then, this week, I had an idea for a story.
Anyone who writes short stories knows that they come along like fish up a river. There are the occasional sprats and minnows that look tasty enough when they catch the sun, but when you do hook them, after a bit of a struggle, you get to realising that they really weren't worth the effort. The trick - and I have only learned this from years of diligent, frustrated practice - is to only go after the ones you really want. They are not always easy to identify, of course, but you do the best you can. And the thing about storie ideas, and fish, is that you either go for them when they are passing or you give them up as lost, because they very rarely pass your way again.
This week - Monday, I think it was - I caught a glimpse of a tasty-looking story. And I went for it. Now, here I am and it is Thursday afternoon. I'm still not done, but I've made it through the worst of the struggle, and at least I can see the end in sight. Actually, it has been a pretty decent week of writing. When it's really working, when the fish are biting and the words are flowing, I don't think there's a better feeling in the world. It doesn't last, of course. You wade through your second or third rewrite (or your tenth, if that's your way of doing things), and maybe you'll take a minute or a day to wallow in the glow of self-contentment. Then you pack it up, your latest baby, plaster on the stamps and send it off out into the big unfriendly world. And you wait for those rejections to roll in.
So, there it is. A week nearly down, another new story nearly done and a pile of historical novel research mouldering away in the desk drawer. Novels don't get written by letting them moulder, but what can I say? My problem is that I like fishing. I understand the problems posed by fish, but when you reel in a good one it truly is a heartfelt joy. The rest of the time, all you can really do is try not to fall in the river...

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

John Prine

Where did John Prine come from? What planet, I mean, or what heavenly plane. For some years now, I have been preaching the Gospel according to John to any who might care to hear. And I know that the converted will eagerly clamour to back me up.
I am not exaggerating when I say that I have yet to find another writer, poet or lyricist (with the admitted exception of Dylan), another artist of any kind, in fact, with such a delicate and dexterous turn of phrase. John Prine's songs don't merely ache with humanity, they bleed the stuff, and they are a gift that has gone tragically unnoticed or ignored by a world obsessed with airhead glitterati and hollow fantasy. Maybe he is simply unlucky to have been born a man out of his time, or ahead of it, maybe he crash landed on the wrong planet, but the fact is that he has just too much substance for most people to bear.
Actually, John Prine, equal parts acerbic and self-deprecating, might be the ultimate folk poet, the true voice of the everyman. No pomp, no swaggering faux-intellectuality, no ego inflated to popping point. He leaves the fireworks for others, knowing perhaps that even if fireworks do reach impressive heights, the burn out far too quickly. Prine's songs don't burn out, they smoulder with an nearly untouchable majesty. In common with the likes of Merle Haggard and perhaps Gordon Lightfoot, he lays down words that sound and seem simple but which are devastating in their honesty. He watches the world, and he lives, and when something moves him just right he turns it into a song.
And what a song... I dare anyone to listen to 'Hello In There', 'Far From Me', or 'Mexican Home', or my favourite song of all time, the sublime 'Souvenirs', and not feel their soul shifting clear across their bodies; I dare them to wallow in 'Fish And Whistle' or 'Dear Abby' or 'That's The Way The World Goes Round' without cracking a smile that's all teeth and gums.
As a writer, I don't feel envious of John's ability to turn a phrase or to craft a simile. I merely drink them in and gasp in awe. And I reserve my envy for those incredibly fortunate people who have just discovered, or who are just about to discover, this massive wealth of genuinely astonishing music (music that, along with the collected writings of Dylan and Hemingway, comfortably stands alongside America's finest bodies of artistic work). My envy is well spent too, because I know that there are few experiences in life as transcendent as hearing for the very first time the harrowing and poignant 'Sam Stone', or the life-in-a-stolen-moment perfection of 'Angel From Montomery, or the eight-minute novel, 'Lake Marie', a genuine bone-fide masterpiece for our times, as good, truly, as anything ever ever written in any form.
If you only know John Prine by name, or if you have never heard of him at all, then do yourself the favour of a lifetime and educate yourself to the music industry's best kept secret. You won't regret it for a single minute, I promise. And if, with this paltry blog entry, I manage to open even one reader's mind to the beauty of John Prine then I will consider this day a very good one indeed.

For a quick leg up the ladder, check out the indispensable website,

Monday, May 18, 2009

These Days There Are So Many Overused Terms

These days, the word 'genius' gets bandied about like pickled eggs on a Jolly Boys' Beano. As an overused term, it may not be quite up there with that other promiscuous moniker, 'legend', but it's not far behind.
These days, it gets rolled out like a drumbeat for almost anyone who is able to convert an idea into a spendable unit of currency. Ronaldo (the less-than-Brazilian one) is a 'genius' with a football; existentialist-chef, Heston Blumenthal, is a 'genius' at charging exorbitant rates to egotists for a bit of seasoned roadkill; and Simon Cowell (yes, even Simon Cowell, who seems to think it is profound to wear a sweater with no shirt!!!) is a 'genius' at telling people they can't sing, or they can't dance or they look bloody awful, thereby turning an old Kit Kat advert into a multinational career.
Okay, I'm overdoing it, I know. Deep breaths, try for a bit of perspective.
Luckily for me, these days the answer to everything is just a few tapped keys and a mouse click away. In less time than it takes to spell A, a google search turned up this little pearl of clarity:

These days, 'Genius', according to Websters' (very convenient) online dictionary, is defined as an 'extraordinary intellectual power especially as manifested in creative activity'.

No mention of Eureka! Unless, of course, that famous/infamous shout is these days more accurately represented by the ringing of cash register bells. Oh well, I suppose I shouldn't be so surprised. There was a time (allegedly) when gravity made the world go 'round. Then love came along and had a go. Now it's money's turn ...

Saturday, May 16, 2009

PJ O'Connor Radio Drama Awards

Lately, I've been feeling as blue as B.B. King. I'm putting in the hours, slaving through the research for my novel and occasionally interrupting myself to bloodlet a few words of half-conceived ideas for stories, but the clouds have massed above my head and the rejections are piling up around me at a frenzied rate. My new book, In Too Deep, is coming out soon but my confidence is in the gutter just now and I can't even begin to imagine who might pay out hard-earn coin for the privilege of reading it.
And then, yesterday afternoon, a ray of light poked its welcome head through the gloom. I answered the phone to a message from RTE, informing me that, for the second year running, I had made the shortlist of the PJ O'Connor Radio Drama Award. A couple of months ago, like so many other hopefuls, I polished up the manuscript of my second ever 28-minute radio play, found a title that seemed to fit ('A Game Of Confidence'), printed it out and sent it off.
Last year, when my play, 'Deliver Us From Evil', was shortlisted, I took myself off to Dublin 4, sat through a nice ceremony and drowned my considerable nerves in too much red wine. I came away empty-handed (and light headed). This year, though, things will be different. Apparently, in an effort to tighten their belts and shoelaces, RTE, Ireland's national broadcaster, have done away with such formalities and have set aside a date, the 8th of June, on which they will simply announce the winning entries. A relief, actually. I don't think I could stand another crippling ceremonial disappointment, and I know that I can't spare the cost of a train to Dublin and an exorbitantly overpriced hotel room.
So, roll on the 8th of June. I'll be crossing everything up and down my person that is even remotely possible to cross. And I'll be tuned in to the Arts Show, desperately hoping against hope to hear my name announced, from the cramped comfort of my attic in Cork.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Sour Grapes Turn My Stomach

Was there ever a time when the job of writing required nothing more than the actual devotion of months and years worth of hours spent slaving, quill or pen in hand, over a ream of paper, toiling until a story of sufficient quality had been bled forth? Put as bluntly as that, it seems a horrendous way of making a living, but the sad truth is that, these days, the final full stop merely signals that the real work is about to begin.
For writers, these days, the business is all about promotion. There are some who like to claim that it is what not who you know that counts, but there can be no denying that knowing the right people helps enormously. You can write a great book but if you don't get into the best review columns nobody is going to know your masterpiece even exists. Everywhere you look, there are literary festivals, arts grants and book awards, but even places at those podiums, alas, seem reserved for the chosen and the favoured few. Even finding a publisher is not enough anymore. Then again, perhaps it never was enough. Cultivating the right friendships was probably just as important in Hemingway's and Joyce's day, even back in Shakespeare's time, as it is today.
So, a prayer:
May God in His heaven look kindly on the introverted few who live by the desperately hopeful mantra that, in the end, the worthy stuff will somehow make it to the top. And, in the meantime, grant them the strength to endure and to keep the faith while they are forced to look on from their murky little hole in the wall as some flash-in-the-pan footballer's inflatable popette of a wife sells her ghost-written ought-o-biography to a clamouring flock of bidders and as the latest friend of a friend of Daddy's accountant's friend takes his or her turn in the lavish limelight to casually collect their hard-earned cheque for however many thousand and to mutter a few self-serving thank you's to all those glorious princes and princesses of the highest echelons for naming their most recent tome as best this or that of the year.
It's all about as depressing as January rain, but it's reality, and the only way to carry on is to keep your head down and simply carry on. When the dreams wither, hurry to replace them, keep on writing your thousand words a day and keep reaching for the shining stars in the sky. Oh, and vent before the pressure becomes too much ...

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Bucket Lists

I quite like the idea of a Bucket List. It's a simple enough concept: you take a sheet of paper and jot down all the things you want to do before the old grim reaper comes a-knocking, and then you try to strike off as many of those goals as you can in the time you have left. I suppose it offers a kind of focus if you happen, as I do, to suffer from wandering-aimlessly-through-life syndrome.
As I am thirty-four years old and have ambitions to live to at least my late nineties, my Bucket List will probably run to several hundred pages. And it would be full of the usual things too: visit the South Seas, crack time travel, criss-cross America in an open top Cadillac, write the book that I know I should write but somehow can't, get to outer space, shake hands with Bob Dylan, discover the perfect pickle, master the penny-whistle, maybe even learn how to juggle. On my deathbed, I'd like to be able to say my goodbyes in twenty-seven languages.
The problem is actually writing down such hopes and dreams. They glitter in my mind but on paper they seem staid. And writing them down seems to carve them in stone. What am I really saying, and what are these longings saying about me? Supposing I can't achieve all the goals, supposing penny-whistles drop out of circulation or I develop some sort of inner ear problem that effects my balance in a way that makes juggling out of the question. Suppose I do meet Bob Dylan and he simply refuses to shake hands. Will that mean that my life has been one great failure? No, writing a Bucket List seems like too much of a commitment, I think. Besides, I'm thirty-four now but who knows what I will want at forty-four, or ninety-four? Maybe at ninety-four the extent of my dreams will stretch to a comfortable rocking chair and a bladder that works only when it should. Our goals change all the time. The achievement, I think, is in accepting what we have and who we are ...

Friday, May 8, 2009

Magic In The Night

On Wednesday night, in Dublin's O2 Arena, Bob Dylan finished the latest leg of his 'neverending' tour with a performance ridiculous in its sublimity. Too lavish a buttering of praise? Well, not to these eyes and ears. Not to this heart.
I have learned over the years that the things you see from ten feet away really make all the difference. You catch it all from here, the nuances in phrasing, the lowdown smirks, the wandering one-legged dance steps. Everything. Others understand this too, others who bother to get in line six hours before the kick off just so that they can snag the best position, right on the rail, front and centre (or preferably, a few feet to the right of centre). It is like perching on the edge of a tornado, static intensity comes at you in waves, and all you can do is hold on for dear life.
Ten feet away on Wednesday night, and there was Bob, cringing and smirking his way through a stomping set, decked out in dapper black and yellow and looking like some outlaw stray from a flea bitten cowboy flick. Doing it his way. And the converted lapped it up.
He hit the ground at a fast canter, a Wicked Messenger indeed, and sustained the intensity through eighteen songs and two and a quarter hours, all the way through to the spun-gold
harmonica solo to close out a savagely mutated Blowin' In The Wind that was inspired in its reinvention. All the way through, his singing was right there, on the money, and he toyed with the phrasing as if every utterance was a game of Blind Man's Bluff. Highlights? How about a gentle guitar-performed Girl From The North Country, or a brooding Man In The Long Black Coat? How about a word-perfect and meticulously enunciated Desolation Row, Bob's facial expressions pantomiming every line, or a banjo-laden Blind Willie McTell, or the nastiest, angriest Ballad Of A Thin Man that you are ever likely to hear? And if that is not enough, how about a song from the new album, the Midnight Special-esque 'If You Ever Go To Houston', perfromed for the second night in a row and for the second time ever?
The hand grenade for me, though, was a mammoth rendition of that often-creaking old warhorse, Highway 61 Revisited. Based around a stomping blues riff that churned the band to a frenzy, Bob pushed for more and more and always always more, until finally you could feel the music in your bones, churning your marrow to mud. On and on it came, until Bob was no longer just a tornado now but a black hole. He had cast his spell, struck up a wild vortex, and was sucking in everything in sight and beyond. And then, just as the song neared its crescendo, a bar or two from the end, he stepped away from his keyboard, turned his back on the dumbstruck band and raised his chin in a high profile pose. The moment froze solid, for me and perhaps for everyone, and I believe in magic now.
So much happened that night, so much to savour, but my overwhelming and enduring memory will be the way he held that pose, while the band stormed along behind, proud face raised, the famous Oscar glinting before him from the stinging footlight sheen. The noise closed in from everywhere, the band a runaway train now, the audience applause tumultuous, and then, with comical absurdity, Bob reaches up and pats the back of his hair.
If Dylan still throws down gauntlets these days, then this could have been just such a moment. Let them all come, he might have been saying. And let them even dare to try rocking half as hard as that. Tonight, Highway 61 Revisited was nuclear blues. Everything was tight, everything impossibly right. It doesn't get any better than that. And throughout the entire show, not a word was wasted, not a single word even uttered, in fact. No pandering here, no 'Hello Dublin', no between song thank yous, not even a band introduction. If there was any concession to, or even acknowledgement of, the audience, then it was to be found in that one peculiar moment of posing, and then, at the very end, a quick line-up with the band, before they traipsed off to go their separate ways, another leg of the tour ended, another job done, and done well. Tonight, the songs were left to do the talking, and really, isn't that just as it should be?

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Hag's Bed Is More Comfortable Than You Might Think ...

Bank Holiday Monday here in Cork, weather overcast but warm, getting some writing done, one step forward two steps back. I never liked Bank Holidays...
Yesterday, feeling the need to be out somewhere doing or seeing something of value, I gave myself a history lesson, took myself off to the beautiful seclusion of Glanworth, one of north Cork's true hidden treasures. Take a left at Fermoy, follow the twists and turns for a few miles and there it is, home to the oldest public bridge in Ireland (and possibly in Europe), a place too picturesque even for postcards.
Every step you take in a place like Glanworth counts for something, whether you know it or not. Here you stand in one of the three ancient capitals of Munster, and the way to properly appreciate a town like this is to take it at a walk, to breathe and to feel and to stand in the very spots where the stories had played themselves out. Here was where Tommy Barry led an ambush on the Black and Tans back in the day, 1919. Two men down, identity parades, and small miracles. Or this bridge, standing since the mid-15th century, a magnificent structure spanning thirteen arches long and strong over the babbling River Funcheon: blown by "the boys" back in Civil War times, blown up, priest and all.
Of greatest interest to me, though, was The Hag's Bed, the Labbacallee Megalith, a 5000 year old wedge tomb of incredible size and proportion situated a mile or so out of town. Ancient almost beyond compare, older than the pyramids at Giza, as old as Stonehenge.
In Glanworth, if you are of a particular mind, you can feel the history everywhere on a quiet Sunday afternoon.
It was a pretty good day, actually,

Dylan's Together Through Life playing incessantly in the backround

Thursday, April 30, 2009

My Minute As A Cloud

An hour or so ago, I was sitting in my desk, gazing out of the attic window, when I noticed a very strange thing in the sky. I should have been writing, of course, head down, fingertips dancing back and forth across the keyboard, mind consumed with thoughts of a story yet to be told, but I had already put in a pretty decent morning's work and, I have to admit, I was feeling good about myself.
My window-gazing was part of what I felt was a well-earned mini-break, and I was luxuriating in one of those oh-so-comfortable brain-freeze moments that mottle only the very best days, when my eyes happened upon it.
It's just a cloud, I told myself, but in my suddenly racing heart I knew that it was not just a cloud.
It was me. What I mean is, it was a cloud carved into the exact shape of my head in profile. Seriously. I stared at it and tried my best to laugh, but there was nothing funny about it. This cloud had the shape of my head just right, and it had the details of my nose, my chin, everything. I know my profile well, or as well as anyone can ever really know their own profile, and I had no doubt in my mind that this was me.
I can't say exactly how long I sat there staring at this miraculous freak of nature hovering above me like some kind of spun-sugar balloon, but it must have been at least a minute or so. Cloud formations aren't permanent, but for the greater part of that minute the image still kept up the resemblance, even as some stata gust nipped and tucked, worked on skimming my nose and adjusting my overbite, on rounding my chin and taking off a little excess flab here and there, until just prior to the moment of total breakup, I had become a cloud-rendition of a made-over Hollywood movie star. I was Johnny Depp or Harrison Ford or Cary Grant, and then, just like that, I was gone, torn asunder by a single knowing breeze.
No one believes me. Just like nobody believed me when I said I saw Elvis buying a trolley full of Clonakilty black pudding in Tesco's a couple of years ago. It seems that I make a habit of missing the Kodak Moments. The camera battery is always flat when most needed, and the mobile phone in my pocket is of a model so prehistoric that it can barely comprehend the concept of texting. To be honest, though, I am past caring what people think. I know what I saw, and that's all that matters. I don't need the reassurance of a photograph.
Thinking about it, I suppose there are far worse ways of spending a minute of my day. Life as a cloud probably wouldn't be so bad. I will admit, though, that I'm troubled by the fact that I saw this only because I happened to have been in exactly the right place and at exactly the right time. I could have been doing any of a hundred other things at that precise moment, but I wasn't. I was at my attic window, gazing upwards. I suppose I just got lucky.
Still, this whole business does beg an important question: how many other people every day drift by as clouds in the sky and are never even noticed? That's a little worrying, isn't it?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Small Damascus Moment

I listen to Bob Dylan when I write. He's always there, and he always seems to know exactly what to say. Today I spent five hours working on a section of my novel-in-progress, with "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands", the breathtakingly beautiful closing track on Bob's sublime 'Blonde On Blonde' album, locked in a continuous loop. Like so many of Dylan's lyrical masterpieces, this song astonishes me, more so with every listen, in fact. I adore the way I never fully feel as if I have a full understanding of his songs, even though I have lived with them virtually my entire life. It is their mystery that intrigues, I think.
There are plenty who dispute Dylan's status as a poet. I would never claim to be an authority on poetry but I have to say that no other writer's words have ever moved me quite as much as Bob's do. So maybe he is not a poet, but if not then he is something deeper than that.
It has long been my experience that when it comes to appreciating his songs slow ingestion is best. He writes them and sings them, and they are out there for us, to grow into when we are ready.
I remember when his late-90s masterpiece, 'Time Out Of Mind', was released. I listened to the album incessantly, and I remember thrilling over so many of the songs, such as "Not Dark Yet", "Standing In The Doorway" and "Trying To Get To Heaven". Lost in the mix, or somehow overlooked by me, was what had seems a lightweight number, "To Make You Feel My Love". Cover versions of the song were getting some heavy airplay, by big hitters such as Billy Joel and Garth Brooks, but for some reason I just didn't get it. That was my failing, of course, not the song's. And then, about three years ago, I was listening to the album for the umpteenth thousand time, and suddenly it was as if the noise of the whole world stopped. It's rarely anything tangible, just some inner shifting of rusty cogs, and there it is, the magic, unfurling in all its mysterious glory. More than words, more than melody, the entire thing just gets into your bloodstream. I think I didn't get the song because I wasn't yet ready to get it, my life hadn't yet reached the necessary point in its trails. It was a small Damascus moment, and one that left me wondering what other songs in Bob's vast pantheon of work have yet to properly reveal themselves to me.
A new album is always an event. Since 1997's 'Time Out Of Mind', critical acclaim for Dylan has been absolute, with 'Love and Theft' and 'Modern Times' both receiving lavish praise. Now we have another album of new material, 'Together Through Life', to ingest. The reflex action is always to love the latest work or to be disappointed that, in your mind, it falls some way short of his best stuff, 'Blood On The Tracks' or 'Bringing It All Back Home' or 'Freewheelin', or whichever album it is that turns your wheels. I try to be more cautious. For me, 'Love and Theft', initially, was a letdown, but now I understand that the weakness was mine, not the songs. So when Amazon (finally) delivers to my door, I will sit and listen, over and over and probably over again, and I'll take what Bob has chosen, for now, to give. But I won't rush anything, because I'll know that there are years worth of detail waiting to be discovered, in these songs and in all the others, but only when the time is right.
I can't help it if I'm lucky...

Friday, April 24, 2009


I received a cheque in this morning's post, for 'Sygygy', a story of mine that appeared in the Vernal Equinox edition of the wonderful Cezanne's Carrot (which you can read at if you should feel so inclined). 'Syzygy' was a story was one that I really enjoyed writing, and I was very pleased with the result. Last year, it received an honourable mention in Glimmer Train's Open Fiction contest, and the good people at Cezanne's Carrot have named it an Editor's Choice story. Mercier Press, my publishers, must like it too because it is scheduled for inclusion in my forthcoming collection, 'In Too Deep'.
To be honest, I've never been too enamoured with trying to publish stories online. With a print copy you have something tangible, you know? Online stuff doesn't really offer the same sense of satisfaction, at least in my opinion. But I have a lot of stories written, and at the moment all I really want is to get the stuff out there. Beggars can't be choosers, and all that.
I must admit, thought, that I am slowly changing my mind about online submissions. Cezanne's Carrot is one of my favourites. I also enjoy (and have published stories with) Underground Voices, and of course the likes of Eclectica and Narrative Magazine has some incredible content. Anyway, this morning's cheque amounted to the princely sum of twenty five dollars. It allows me to buy a ream of paper, and it will pay for a few stamps. The encouragement is the real prize, though, and the way things are at the moment I'll take and lap up all that comes my way.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Snakes and Ladders Days...

This year's Francis McManus Award shortlist is up on RTE's website. I had submitted a story back in September, entitled, 'More Than One Way To Skin A Cat,' and I had been harbouring high hopes that it would turn up trumps for me. Unfortunately, there is no sign of my name (or my story) on the shortlist. To say that I am disappointed would be one of the understatements of the year so far, but it's not as if I haven't been through this before. I submit a story for this award every year and I have only ever been shortlisted once, with a story called 'War Song', back in 2005. Perhaps my stories are just not suited to radio. Well, that is yet another thing for me to work on.
Oddly, my writing is flowing really well at the moment. I have the novel in my sights, I'm putting in the hours and I know exactly what I want to do with the story. I am only at the beginning, of course, and I have to force myself to stop fantasising about the finish, but unlike some of the other false-start novels I have attempted, the finish seems genuinely attainable. Whether or not the book will actually be any good is another matter, but for now the writing is coming easily, and I am happy. So, despite the latest disappointment my head is in a good state, and that's a golden feeling.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Starting Work on a Novel ...

This week I've started work on a novel. Well, when I say started, what I mean to say is that I have committed myself to doing it. The idea is in place, and I know the story that I want to tell, so the rest should be easy, right? Right?
The problem is that I have been down this road before. And I know that the idea is the least of it. I already have a 90,000 word novel wallowing in rejection in a box under the bed, a novel that I was certain the world was going to love. Unfortunately, the publishers didn't. At least, not enough to publish it. They say you learn something from everything you write but 90,000 words worth of learning makes for an awfully long and harsh lesson. Now, if it was just the one book tucked away with the dust bunnies then I suppose that wouldn't be so bad. Call it an apprenticeship, and move on, right? Except, also hidden away are a couple of aborted 100-plus page manuscripts and a short (60,000 word) Western novel of the almost-but-not-quite-pulp variety that I have since discovered doesn't really interest too many people in the publishing game anymore.
What I take from such previous efforts (doing my best Eric Idle and looking on the bright side ...) is the knowledge that I can actually complete a full-length work. A full-length publishable work might be another matter, though.
So, I am in the research stage. Set a millennia in the past, I am hoping to tell the story of a semi-historical (or should that be pseudo-historical) but much overlooked Irish figure. In my dreams, I see the book as a James Michener crossed with Morgan Llywelyn. The bones of a story are in place, typically full of contradictions, which I hope will allow me the freedom to embellish to beat the band. I'm equal parts nervous and excited to be starting on such a venture but I feel that with the publication, this coming June, of my short story collection, 'In Too Deep', I have bought myself a few months or so to at least give it a try.
Discipline will be the key to getting finished. Daily word count targets are my way of getting a workable first draft, 1000 words, limited tea breaks, no excuses. The difficult part is actually getting started. For now, the research part of this game is enjoyable, and necessary, but I know that after a while I'll probably start using it as an excuse. The sooner I can actually start writing, the better ...

Friday, April 17, 2009

Mornin', y'awll!

Okay, here we go...
First of all, I suppose an introduction is in order. So, here it is:
My name is Billy O'Callaghan, I live in an attic in Cork (in Ireland, for those in distant lands) and am trying hard to write my way to sanity. Apparently, I still have quite a distance to go.
Last year, I received the boost that all us poor misguided creatures (writers...) crave, when a collection of my short stories, entitled 'In Exile', was published by Mercier Press, Ireland's oldest independent publishing house. Not that very many people noticed, of course (check the Amazon sales rankings if you require confirmation). There was no juggernaut promotional campaign, not for a small first printing (something like 2000 copies, still not sold through). The book scored a few pleasant reviews, not exactly cloud nine stuff but enough to set the pulses fluttering, and then that was more or less it.
Mercier, though, must have liked something about the book, because they have decided to gamble on me again. Sometime this coming June, a second collection, 'In Too Deep', will appear in bookshops up and down the country, and across the world (well, I can dream ...). I'm not expecting miracles, but hey, you never know, do you?
Getting published might sound like I've got it made but the reality, unfortunately, is very, VERY different. Still, it has been a struggle almost beyond words to get even this far. I might be merely a minnow in a great unfriendly ocean but at least I'm out there, and trying my damnedest to swim.
This blog will be my attempt at describing life here on my lowly rung of the writing ladder, far away from the highs of bestsellers lists and appearances on Oprah, Tuburdy's Book Club, or Richard and Judy (or whatever it might be that they call themselves, these days). My world (like that of the majority of struggling writers) is a world of multiple rejections, of having to cope with the painful belly-kick that comes from not making the shortlist of whichever short story competition has held my hopes and dreams in its grasp for the past several months. The occasional successes, when they bother to come, tend to be paid in pittances at best but more likely in a solitary contributor's copy of some nice-looking magazine or journal that perhaps a hundred people will ever bother to read. A hundred if I'm lucky.
What you will find here probably won't be pretty, but it will be reality. We can't all be Dave Eggers or Jhumpa Lahiri, we can only be ourselves.

Now, it's sherbet time ...